As you probably know, I am a huge fan of the Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) as it is the sleekest, most aesthetically pleasing spacecraft I have ever seen. Rather than looking like a generic satellite, GOCE has been constructed in the shape of an aerodynamic spaceship as its orbit is so low that atmospheric drag will be a factor. Adding to the wow! factor is the GOCE ion engine giving a small but steady thrust to make sure GOCE doesn’t lose altitude during its Sun-synchronous orbit. Combine all these factors with the incredibly advanced science it will be carrying out during its 20 month lifetime, this is about as advanced as a terrestrial satellite can get.
So, ahead of its launch on September 10th, GOCE has been packed safely inside the Breeze-KM Upper Stage at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia. Next time the craft sees light will be three-minutes after launch in six days time…
The five-metre long GOCE is now safely tucked away inside the protective fairing of the Rockot vehicle it will be launched by. The Rockot rocket is in fact a converted intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM); so not only does GOCE look like a Star Destroyer it will be launched atop a converted weapon designed to wipe out cities. Can this mission get any more impressive?
After launch and after the fairing has dropped away, the Breeze-KM Upper Stage will ignite, inserting GOCE into its final orbital altitude of 285 km. At that time, GOCE will spark to life, powering up its transmitters and sending telemetry data to mission control. Until this point, ESA will be nervously watching events unfold.
During GOCE packing inside the Rockot fairing, ESA’s Launch Campaign Manager Jürgen Schmid said, “So far the GOCE launch preparation activities have gone quite smoothly – this is also thanks to the fully motivated industrial team from Thales Alenia Space. The remaining activities comprise of a final electrical test of the satellite in launch configuration and a dry run of the countdown itself with the Mission Control Centre at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, ESA’s Spacecraft Operations Centre (ESOC) in Germany and the ESA ground network. Today completes the launch team’s stay of 5 weeks at the Cosmodrome and we all are looking forward to the launch next week.”
All we can do now is sit and wait until September 10th at 16:21 CEST (14:21 UTC) when the converted ICBM blasts off. The GOCE mission has been prepared at Plesetsk since the end of July undergoing pre-flight tests and now the mission engineers can begin rolling the whole package to the launchpad some 5 km down the road where the Rockot upper-stage can be united with the main stage booster.
When in orbit, GOCE (the first in a series of Earth Explorer missions from ESA’s Living Planet Program) will begin mapping the Earth’s geoid to a high degree of accuracy, returning unprecedented detailed information about the gravitational field of the Earth.
For further information about GOCE: